Satellite services are beginning to shape up as an effective solution for public safety’s interoperability challenges thanks to next-generation satellite technology capable of high-speed data transmission and the accompanying advancement of devices that take advantage of today’s sleek form factors and cost.

Expensive technology and clunky handsets played a large role in the satellite industry’s downfall in the late 1990s. Today, armed with new business plans, satellite operators are poised to capitalize on popular applications by being able to offer them ubiquitously. Key to that plan is an announcement made in September that is designed to bring satellite connectivity to devices at a competitive price point. Qualcomm made a deal with ICO and Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) to put both satellite and cellular phone technology into baseband chips embedded in multi-mode phones.

This will enable handset makers to develop EVDO, WCDMA and LTE phones that are satellite-capable—a significant development given the fact that the public-safety community hopes to utilize commercial technology in the 700 MHz band in partnership with commercial operators.

“That means that satellite-enabled chipsets are going to be available at no incremental cost," said Chris Gates, vice president of strategy with MSV, which is already targeting the public-safety community with connectivity solutions. "The power of this can't be overstated. Satellite services can move cost effectively into the mass market with no impact on device form factor.”

Embedded technology solutions developer EB last month introduced a satellite-terrestrial connectivity module proof of concept that could be integrated into LMR radios used by public-safety personnel, allowing access to satellite communications when the terrestrial network is unavailable. The module will take advantage of next-generation satellites various operators plan to deploy and put in service within the next two years. These satellites are expected to enable data rates of 200 to 300 kb/s.

Earlier this year, EB announced a reference design for a satellite-terrestrial smartphone PDA the company developed for satellite service provider TerreStar. The satellite-terrestrial connectivity module leverages this expertise, said Jarno Majava, manager of connectivity products for EB wireless solutions. EB is looking at a licensing-oriented business model for the two reference designs.

Perhaps most critical, is the fact that EB’s module design, which includes a Freescale off-the-shelf processor and a satellite protocol from Hughes Networks, can result in satellite-capable modules costing $100 or less.

That is a powerful proposition considering the types of applications the solution could support, for instance remote meter reading in areas that lack terrestrial wireless connectivity and video surveillance in remote premises. In addition, a satellite-only version of the module could be used to provide LMR radios with satellite connectivity—automatically or by use of a manual switch—in areas beyond the coverage area of the terrestrial network or when the terrestrial network is disabled after a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina.

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